This is my last week in the Bagel and I’m going to give it the old college try. Two weeks without booze, ciggies or ladies have made Taki a very dull boy. The next seven days — or rather nights — will decide.
The Bagel, of course, is not what it used to be, but then what is? I was recently looking at some grand Gotham landmarks, contemplating that they — and I — will not be around for ever. I walked inside the San Remo on the West Side and I was transported to a different era: high ceilings, thick walls, big windows and lots of character. Only the wildest romantic would build towers inspired by the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, topped by Corinthian temples 30 stories up in the air. (They conceal twin water tanks.) From the turn of the last century until the 1929 stock market crash, most of the important apartment buildings were designed in the beaux-arts style. They look even more beautiful when compared with the glass horrors of today. The beaux-arts and art-deco styles continued up to the war, but then came the Bauhaus and the end of beauty and grace.
I suppose one always tends to look back when the bell for the last round goes off. Looking back is fun because one only remembers the good. Authority-defying gasbags were in short supply back then; the war had made everyone a patriot. The counterculture and the hippies were 15 years away, the corrupt culture of Facebook 60 years in the distance. The Metropolitan Museum had not been debased and turned into a freak show by the social-climbing Anna Wintour, and Jeff (Errol Flynn) Bezos looked handsomer as DNA.
Train travel back then was romantic, and Grand Central conjured up those classic movie scenes where soldiers and their sweethearts meet, embracing beneath the great clock. It just wouldn’t be the same today in a lousy crowded airport full of security, would it? Yep, those were the powerful sounds and sights of childhood: the trains with names like ships, Empire Builder or the Spirit of St Louis. Penn Station was even grander than Grand Central, with more pillars, a vaster promenade and long steps an emperor would pine for, but it always brought back sad memories of returning to boarding school. (A modern Nero named Robert Moses knocked the place down in the 1960s.)
Another thing that was different in the distant past was that no one I knew or came into contact with was star-struck. In fact, it was downright rude, certainly not the done thing, to say things like ‘OMG!’ when coming across some celebrity. That was left to the so-called bobby soxers, silly young women who screamed and fainted over singers such as Sinatra and Perry Como. But those two, along with many others, were great singers who carried great tunes written by great songsmiths. Certainly not the crap we have to put up with today.
Yes, it was a seemingly less complicated time, a safer, more romantic and more innocent time — as I keep repeating ad nauseam. It may be true that every generation is regaled with grumbles about the downfall of grand cities, but it’s undeniable that certain charms of the 1950s have been lost for ever. In those days, fewer skyscrapers blocked out the sun, leaving the streets brighter by day. Fifth and Park Avenues were pristine and frequented by some of the best-dressed people. It was suits and hats for men, women in furs and gloves: a daily Easter parade. I write this having just returned from a doctor’s office on Fifth. Everyone I saw on the street was small and fat, wearing a baseball cap and horribly covered in a bulky plastic windbreaker. They spoke mostly Spanish.
And as far as entertainment is concerned, fuggedaboudit. OK, the big-band era was over by the time I turned 21, but you still had the Persian Room at the Plaza, the El Morocco, the Stork and the Cotillion Room at the Pierre. High society went out every night and tripped the light fantastic to starchy orchestras like Raoul Zequeira’s and Lester Lanin’s, or drank late into the dawn at the Blue Angel on Third Avenue and 55th Street. Television finished around midnight, so people stayed out late looking for action at the Little Club or the Tender Trap. Until the mid-1960s it seemed as if every block uptown had some form of cabaret, and the young kept them in the chips.
Today the town at night is deader than the proverbial doornail, and the only action is downtown in loud, crowded places peopled by rappers, their whores and their gutter-talking entourages. There are more guns in downtown clubs nowadays than in speakeasies during Al Capone-era Chicago. One reads about shootings all the time, but they take place in faraway bars no one has ever heard of. Normal people stay home with Netflix or their texting contraptions, and hangovers are a thing of the past, like standing up when a lady comes into the room. Was the Manhattan I first lived in a beautiful illusion embellished by the innocence of youth? Not a bit of it. It was a real-life fairy tale that Jan Morris captured in her book Manhattan ’45 — still the number one as far as I’m concerned — and I lived it to the full.
Now I’m quite happy to leave this Manhattan behind: adios, as they say on Fifth Avenue.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.